Gary Carter: A Story Through the Body and Beyond
Miranda Taylor meets Gary Carter, a yoga teacher trainer expertly uncovering what we understand about myofascial movement and our anatomy.
Gary Carter is kindly showing me some scientific plastinate replicas of the inside of our bodies with the skin peeled off. One moment we were sitting drinking herbal tea on his sofa in south-west London and the next I’ve got a gory version of a super-size action man in my hands.
For Carter though this is normal and highly exciting. As the UK’s leading physiognomy and anatomy expert who runs highly-regarded courses for yoga and pilates teachers and personal trainers, it is now deep in the laboratory, where science meets yoga that Carter is discovering new ways to see and understand our bodies.
‘We are working in Germany at von Hagens’ lab, the Body Worlds guy, who does the plastinate bodies and are looking to create the worlds first ever plastinate fascia human.’ I must be looking confused so he patiently explains:
‘Did you see Casino Royal with Daniel Craig where he kills a guy in an exhibition of human bodies? They are big models – like an athlete going over a pole – it’s quite an amazing thing – it’s called plastination – part of Von Hagens’ exhibition in the museum but there isn’t the fascia.’
In November 14-15, 2018, Carter will be presenting at the World Fascia Congress in Berlin. ‘We will be able to show the effect of scarring and where tensions exist in the body because what we’ve been able to show is that where there are scars are deeper into the system you can see the pathways in the fascia. From an educational point of view I think this will change the way people treat.’
Carter has a quiet, modest confidence that comes with someone very comfortable in his own skin. Dressed in a fitted black t-shirt and blue Levi jeans, we settle down to discuss his intricate and meandering career through athletics, body building days, pilates’ influences, a thorough yoga training in the Scaravelli style, with input and great teachers from different disciplines: Rolfing, Shiatzu to osteopathy and now into the laboratory with scientists all of which informed and helped him discover the unique approach he uses today.
‘Dissection work totally transformed my practice,’ he says in almost an affectionate way, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to cut up a human body. ‘The names of muscles are interesting but they are just names on a road map. The rest (by which he means the fascial connective tissue) is an interconnected structure that doesn’t end.’
He’s really into this tissue and how these new discoveries can inform and improve our practice. ‘So what we used to understand as ‘feeling’ in the body we can now assert as real. It IS there.’ The excitement in his voice is palpable.
Ever since training to be a professional cyclist as a young man, when his coach would call their stretching as ‘elasticity for the spine’, Carter has been investigating the limits and realms of possible movement within the body.
The union of science and yoga is all the more urgent as more and more people are coming to the studios – which is not without its problems.
‘We now live in a yoga era where we see the highest number of yoga injuries ever recorded. Now I don’t think that’s a good thing. And a lot of them are meniscus tears and tears at the hip and it’s because of the way they are doing their practice. Not the practice itself. People are blaming practices but the way they are doing them is not correct.
‘We get 150,000 hip and knee joint replacements a year – that’s not a design fault. That is user error.’
Carter’s approach is clear as he gently suggests: ‘Could people work with their body differently so this doesn’t have to be the case? This is a body that I get given for say 100 years and it can last all the way through without having to break down.’ There is a veneration and respect in his voice when he talks about the vehicle we call our body. He continues,
‘And the key element is teaching people to be liberated with themselves so they are not dependent.’
Despite obvious yogi principles, Carter explains why he is more comfortable with a more pragmatic western approach to teaching. ‘The problem is that yoga has fallen foul to being fanciful and having mysterious words thrown at it. I’ve taught in businesses, schools, in prisons, psychiatric units and lots of people would shut down with the mention of yoga – or energy. Yoga still sits in a really strange place and if we could just swim through the myriad of what is really going on and find where the juice really is!’
Vanda Scaravelli’s work made sense to him he says because he was already doing much of it from the bodybuilding and personal training discipline.
‘I met Vanda through Sophie Hoare – I had one session with her but it was enough just to be around her and she said to me with green beans sticking out of her mouth – just a regular old lady, sitting in the kitchen farting away: ‘You must never force your body.’ When I asked ‘why not?’ she waived a fork in front of me, ‘because you will hurt yourself silly.’ It was so simple. Carter thinks Vanda saw something in him that was pushing too hard. ‘Finally, she said to me, just go away and find what makes your practice light for you.’
When his practice became heavy and stuck he contacted Diane Long – Vanda’s long-term student who lived in Florence. During his 10-day stay they practiced every morning together and then Carter was left wandering around Florence until the evening class where they would practice and eat supper together.
“I had no idea what she was trying to teach me – she was talking about gravity a lot and it was very personal and intimate the way she practiced herself – so I practiced along side her rather than watching. To watch was almost to like watching someone masturbate – it was that personal.’
Until one day wandering around Florence he was looking at Michaelangelo’s statue of David – remembering how the artist had decided to enlarge the size of the joints slightly so that the eyes fluidly fell over the streamlined image. He recalls, ‘I turned myself upside down – remembering my body-building days – and I suddenly got gravity in that moment.’ He went running back to Diane and she just said ‘great now let’s move on.’
‘‘From that moment my practice changed, my spine moved differently.’ And they became friends. Carter would invite Diane back to teach in his ‘Natural Bodies’ studio in Brighton, but not for long as the flock of fans became too oppressive.
‘As a child I was always a bit quiet – contemplating more. I wasn’t strange but I was the black sheep of the family.’ He embraced the punk era, dying his hair and dressing – ‘because this was a way of expressing and being different – the dyed hair, the clothes.’ But all the time he was still training – and would be the designated driver when his friends went to gigs. ‘I wouldn’t drink, always enjoy the gigs and wake up in the mornings feeling OK while everyone else was still in bed till midday.’
He has his father to thank for the training discipline and disciplined athletic role model that would mold his approach. ‘I was always training through my teens and my father got me into cycling.’ It was his cycling coach who taught him about the elasticity in the body. ‘Stretching was called elasticity training, which was interesting.’
‘My dad is still an athlete now at 81 – he’s a world class runner.’
When Gary and Sharon – his half-Brazilian beautiful partner, also a yoga teacher, went out to Brazil to visit some of Sharon’s family, his father came too and ran gold in the World Championship 200 meters at 76 years old.
‘He ran a 14 second 100 meters and my brother and I can only just about keep up with him today. He has this elegance and grace in his running and when he’s not stressed and competing he runs like a cat. If he has a little bit of stress about the event he runs tight and I coach him a little bit with that and show him all these fascia ideas and all he needs to do is listen to it once and takes it in.’
Gary and his father still train together even now: and his influence and gentle, patient approach to the body is an abiding principle they live by: ‘When he was younger he trained barefoot on cinder tracks, so he understands the quality of feel.’
After a devastating cycling accident in his early 20s the only thing Gary could do was static training and a friend gave him a paperback: Education of a Body Builder by Arnold Schwarzenegger. ‘He was 25 and he’d just retired as the world’s greatest body builder.’ His thing was training the whole body, adapting and changing it, so if he had to grow a certain area, he would have to train his calves to match the look.
‘They were sculpting their body. So your eye fell over their body image there was nothing that was abrupt or aggressive in how it looked. It flowed. But nowadays they don’t train like that. They try and get as big as they possibly can. There can be some horrific injuries and then they can take steroids to recover quicker and then they get injured but they can go outside of their pain barrier and of course the pain barrier is there to stop you.
‘Pain should be telling you to not go here because I will break and if you go past that point they are then surprised they get an injury. Those body builders hardly got injuries because they were working intelligently with their bodies and that is how I learnt.’
Recently when he bought his father onto one of his anatomy courses to talk about the quality of his 40 years of physical training, one of the Ashtanga teachers asked him about his injuries. His father said: ‘I pulled my back once and I had a hamstring strain and a calf strain. That’s it.’ This guy said that was just one Ashtanga session for him.
We talk about the recurring injuries appearing increasingly in students: ‘This is what I call yoga ‘insanity’. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing again and again – hoping to get a different result!’
In class Carter clearly still enjoys his job: ‘Apparently we only learn three new things an hour – think about a group of 20 that’s a lot of learning because we don’t all learn the same thing each which is really interesting.’
What he doesn’t enjoy so much is a new impatience students have to achieve results quickly with little effort. ‘People want to get everything right now but there is a contradiction in that because everyone is talking about being in the here and now but how can it be the end game because the body will keep unraveling at the stage you are at?’
Of all the teachers, colleagues, influences through his life investigating movement and the body, Carter constantly references and honours those who help him along the way: his father, the body builders: Vince Torondo ‘all the methods without the drugs’; Len Sales ‘taught me how a good studio was run – somewhere you wanted to be’; Vick Strong ‘the Brian Clough of the body building world’, Carl Lloyd with whom he set up his Natural Bodies studio in Brighton; Tom Mayers; Peter Blackaby; John Sturke; Diane Long; Mary Stewart 'a fearsome Iyengar teacher'; Sophie Hoare; and the scientists: Tod Garcia and Julian Bacon.
Despite this role call of influential trainers, teachers and scientists, Carter says seriously: ‘The bodies in the lab are my teachers now.’ He pays them respect in true yogi tradition. Adding as an afterthought, with a trademark twinkle in his eye, ‘As Vanda always said: we are our own best teachers.’
Gary Carter will be teaching at The London Yoga Festival is 13th-14th October 2018 in central London, W1.
Miranda Taylor is a mother, writer and yoga therapist working privately in west London. She trained as a journalist in Paris with the International Herald Tribune, went on to be the editor of two travel magazines, Traveller and Geographical, before giving up full-time office work to look after two growing kids and train as a Yoga Therapist.
Miranda can be contacted on email: firstname.lastname@example.org or mobile: 07803609445.
© Miranda Taylor